[Screen It]

(2002) (Stuart Townsend, Aaliyah) (R)

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Horror: A centuries-old vampire's ascension to the top of the rock industry ends up resurrecting the all-powerful mother of all vampires who wants to rule the world and kill all mortals.
Having grown weary and frustrated with leading a solitary immortal life, the vampire Lestat (STUART TOWNSEND) hoped to sleep away his problems for centuries. Yet, the former 18th century nobleman is awakened by the sounds of the 21st century, and decides to become a star front man for a heavy metal band.

By doing so and flaunting the fact that he's a vampire, he draws the attention of Jesse Reeves (MARGUERITE MOREAU), a researcher at a British institute for paranormal studies whose fascination with vampires stems from having been raised for a while by one, her centuries old aunt Maharet (LENA OLIN). Yet, Lestat's breaking of the vampire code of conduct also brings out his former master, Marius (VINCENT PEREZ), as well as the Queen of all vampires, Akasha (AALIYAH), who's drawn to Lestat's music and ego.

As Jesse tries to get to know and understand Lestat's world, the vampire continues to flaunt his disregard toward other vampires, a point that gets him in trouble with them and only further strengthens Akasha's resolve to rule the world and kill all mortals.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
With mainstream movies costing tens of millions of dollars to produce and promote, it's no surprise that studios have to take out insurance policies on most of their performers. While that's usually to cover losses occurring from someone breaking a contract or bone and not being able to complete their work, often times it also unfortunately covers accidental and/or untimely deaths.

The cinema is riddled with such examples where studios were forced to decide whether and/or how to complete a film when a performer died while or after making it, or if they should release it at all, obviously worried about how the viewing public would react and/or be distracted by the demise.

James Dean's death in 1955 ultimately didn't hurt his two films ("Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant") that had already been shot, as was the case with Carole Lombard and "To Be Or Not To Be," but did cause the shelving of Marilyn Monroe's last picture, "Something's Got To Give." Other notable deaths and the pictures affected have included Natalie Wood and "Brainstorm," John Candy in "Wagon's East," Bruce Lee with "Game of Death," and his son Brandon Lee in "The Crow."

Now one can add R&B singer turned actress Aaliyah to that list (she died at the age of 22 in a plane crash in 2001). Although her appearances in the two sequels to "The Matrix" have reportedly been scrubbed and recast due to lack of enough substantial material to be used, fans and curious viewers can watch the performer's last performance in this week's release of "Queen of the Damned."

With the eerie coincidence with Brandon Lee being that he played a character rising from the dead to avenge his death, where here she plays a vampire rising from the dead to kill mortals, the film is the second in the line of vampire works from author Anne Rice to be adapted to the big screen.

The first, of course, was 1994's "Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles," director Neil Jordan's stylish film that featured an all-star cast including Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, Stephen Rea, Christian Slater, young Kirsten Dunst and Mr. Tom Cruise as Lestat (with the ironic part being that River Phoenix was cast in what ultimately became Slater's part but died before shooting began).

For better or worse, depending on how one viewed that take on Rice's popular novel, none of those performers return here. Then again, Aaliyah (who previously appeared in "Romeo Must Die" in a supporting role) isn't in it very much either, as she doesn't make her first appearance until about an hour into the film and then takes a break again until the third act gets into full swing.

When she is present, she gives a near hypnotic performance despite the decidedly hokey material and not particularly well-developed role. Yet, she's obviously not the main character, despite what the hype and title might otherwise suggest.

That part goes to Stuart Townsend ("About Adam," "Wonderland") playing the vampire Lestat - previously embodied by Cruise in the earlier film - who's okay, but not terribly remarkable or memorable in the role. It doesn't help that for reasons that are never really explained nor come off as believable, the several hundred-year-old vampire decides he wants to be a rock star.

Notwithstanding the briefly stated rationale behind it and the obviously endless supply of red-blooded groupies at his disposal, the decision by director Michael Rymer ("In Too Deep," "Angel Baby") and screenwriters Scott Abbott (HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and "Winchell") and Michael Petroni ("Till Human Voices Wake Us") - who were "inspired" by Rice's work - in taking the story down that path lessens its impact on the viewer.

Unlike Jordan's gothic horror approach with "Interview," the result here constantly teeters above the deadly valleys known as boredom and camp. Beyond the intrigue of Aaliyah's last performance, the rest of the film is decidedly lackluster. On the other hand, while there are some purposefully funny lines scattered throughout the production, the filmmakers don't go far enough in playing with the vampire as rock star motif.

A press conference regarding such matters is wasted (where's the satire?), as is the entire fish out of water element involving a vampire from the past waking up in current times. He'd undoubtedly come across Hollywood or Rice's take on vampires (or even Cruise playing him in the earlier film), but that doesn't occur.

Of course, doing the latter would involve even more unwise comparisons to the first film that's obviously superior to this one in pretty much every way imaginable. Like that one, this picture jumps around through time a bit as we get to see Lestat's introduction to the vampire world courtesy of the vampire Marius who's decently played by Vincent Perez ("Bride of the Wind," "I Dreamed of Africa").

Unfortunately, and despite all of the blood sucking, however, the film is surprisingly anemic, with the basic story lacking much bite or imagination. In short, Lestat becomes a big rock star and pisses off the other vampires who then want to kill him. Subplots involve Aaliyah's character being resurrected and wanting Lestat for herself, and Lena Olin ("Chocolat," "The Ninth Gate") playing the "good" vampire who wants to protect her great, great, great (okay, I lost count) mortal niece - blandly embodied by Marguerite Moreau ("Wet Hot American Summer," the "Mighty Ducks") - from falling prey to the allure of vampirism.

That's about it, and the end result is not even as exciting or intriguing as that blasť description makes it out to be. With a few exceptions, one can always tells that a film's in trouble and/or that the filmmakers are lazy or desperate when voice over narration is constantly employed to explain things or keep the story moving forward. That's certainly the case here, as we're told how the characters feel and what they're doing or thinking rather than seeing it for ourselves.

The film also suffers from one of those late in the game explanations of how to kill the monster. It's as if the screenwriters suddenly remembered, at the last minute, that they needed to include such info and thus inserted a line of dialogue to set it up just before it's needed.

While it's obvious that the filmmakers are going for the sex appeal and chemistry of combining vampires and rock and roll - something that Joel Schumacher did better in the faulty but still more entertaining "The Lost Boys" - only Aaliyah manages to capture that essence. Unfortunately, she isn't in the picture long enough to make it interesting, and the world will never know what she could have done with better material than this. Neither scary nor smart, or even completely campy enough to be fun, "Queen of the Damned" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 20, 2002 / Posted February 22, 2002

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